Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Beyond the Interview: A Historian's Journey into Community Storytelling

Academic journal article Storytelling, Self, Society

Beyond the Interview: A Historian's Journey into Community Storytelling

Article excerpt

On June 27, 1959, before 50,000 excited onlookers, 30 tons of dynamite blew two holes through the largest steel-celled coffer dam ever built. The structure had held back the raging current of the St. Lawrence River for the last five years. Its breach began the flooding of 38,000 acres of land to initiate power production and open navigation on the St. Lawrence Seaway. The explosion marked the end of a century-long struggle to construct the largest power and navigation project in the world-the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project-often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world.

Even though a number of authors (e.g., Willoughby) documented the lengthy bi-national political debate regarding the merit and funding of the Seaway and power dam, the efforts of the men who completed the work have been ignored. My journey to gain recognition for, and preserve the experiences of, the construction workers behind the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project resulted in the publication of The St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project: An Oral History of the Greatest Construction Show on Earth and thrust me into unknown territory.

Throughout this process, I grappled with my role as a scholar and came to my own conclusions about successful interviewing techniques, sharing authority, and the differences between academia and the public sphere highlighted by the process of storytelling. Prior to this effort, like many academic historians, I concerned myself less with presenting quality narrative presentations for the public and more with publishing articles in scholarly journals. Instead of using oral history as a valuable source to find new interpretations of a well-known event, I combed through archival collections in search of innovative materials to support my thesis statement or put a new twist on a long-supported argument. Now I am committed to continuing to conduct research by collecting the often subjective interpretations from participants in historical events and making their voices heard by sharing my findings in public forums. As Michael Frisch notes, "We must listen and we must share responsibility for historical explication and judgment. We must use our skills, our resources and our privileges to insure that others hear what is being said by those who are articulate, but not always attended to" (Frisch 22).

In this essay, I begin by explaining my choice of autoethnography as a methodology then tell my own story of how I became known as the "Seaway Historian" and the transformative impact this experience had on my future research projects and my life. I provide a brief description of the St. Lawrence Seaway and Power Project, share my motivation for documenting and memorializing the lives of the men involved, and conclude with the lessons I learned about becoming a professional listener and neophyte storyteller. As Alessandro Portelli states, "Oral history is basically the process of creating relationships between narrators and narratees. The historian must work on both the factual and the narrative planes, and become personally responsible for telling their stories" (Portelli, Order 15).

Discovering Autoethnography

Carol Ellis, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner describe autoethnography as combining autobiography-in which an author writes about his or her life-and ethnography-a study of a shared experience to help others understand the culture. "When researchers write ethnographies," they write, "they search to produce aesthetic and evocative thick descriptions of personal and interpersonal experiences and describe how the interactivity of the interview itself produced meaning and emotional dynamics" (Ellis, Adams, and Bochner 12). Thus, with respect to oral history, the methodology is an approach to research and writing that requires oral historians to explore their personal experiences while conducting research.

I derived my methodology and organization for this paper from Ellis et al.'s synopsis of reflexive dyadic interviews. …

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